“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

― Henry Ford

Engineers should always affect the future in technology and not just be victims or spectators to the changes. Currently there are several technologies, which are emerging and have the power to change life in profound ways. These advances in technology are dubbed disruptive technologies. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, these advances will transform life, business, and the global economy. The report identifies 12 technologies that could disrupt not only economies but also the practise of engineering. These technologies include Automation of knowledge work, Internet of things, Cloud technologies, advanced robotics, mobile internet, autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, advanced genomics, energy storage, 3 D printing, advanced materials, advanced oil and gas technologies, and renewable energy.

Automation of Knowledge work

This involves the use of software systems that can perform knowledge-work tasks. And yes, as an Engineer you are a knowledge worker who can get replaced by a software. Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. These include engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, and academics, whose job is to “think for a living”. These possibilities in automation bring the dawn of an age where machines will threaten a new group of jobs. In the Industrial revolution, machines replaced factory shop and cottage workers who used to do repetitive mundane tasks. The new age machines are more inventive and capable of increasingly tough duties. The machines will be capable of doing tasking activities including brainstorming, drilling down on issues, and even creating and modifying strategy. The Kenyan engineer must keep up lest the machines render him or her obsolete. This disruptive technology is driven by developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural user interfaces, and big data technologies.

3 D printing

This technology has been around for some time and even 3 D printing related projects have been undertaken at the University of Nairobi Fablab. The automotive industry has been using this technology for prototyping however it is increasingly becoming a mainstream application with its wide adoption in the medical field and personal labs. 

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file probably a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file. In an additive process, an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. The technology anchors on making a virtual design of the object you want to produce. This virtual design is made using CAD by the help of a 3D modelling program. This could lead to the creating of a of a totally new object. Alternatively, for already existent objects, one could us a 3D scanner to copy; the scanner makes the 3D digital copy of the object.

Due to the ease of use and low investments needed to run this technology, it promises to democratise design and prototyping. Gone are the days when prototyping had to be done behind closed doors in hermitically closed giant corporations by men putting on lab coats. Selective laser sintering, fused deposition modelling, stereolithography and direct metal laser sintering spur on this use of digital models. This technology will soon be bio printing tissue and organs.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles

This technology is at the cusp of mass production in cars and trucks and promises to save thousands of lives in fatal accidents. Developments in advanced sensors, computer vision, and machine-to-machine communications have made this technology possible. In some of the roads in the United Sate of America and Europe, self-driving trucks and cars are becoming normal. What started as a curiosity has quickly caught on with several companies in the race to bring this new motoring experience to the masses. While Kenyan taxi drivers are still causing a ruckus about Uber getting rid of the traditional taxicab, the world has gotten rid of the driver altogether! 

Renewable and Energy storage

The self-driving car is not going to have the sputtering and polluting internal combustion engine, the internal combustion engines have been around too long, and they are quickly being replaced by electric motors. There is much advancement around energy storage and portability that there is an ongoing revolution in how we view and handle energy. Big companies like Tesla are investing a lot in battery technology. With the advent of smaller longer lasting battery units, electric cars are becoming cool to drive and have longer travel ranges.

Renewable sources of energy are becoming a major source of energy in Kenya with the national electric grid having more that 60% renewable energy sources. More renewable energy generation is expected in Kenya with utility scale projects like Lake Turkana Wind Power project set to come on line. Mini grids are also getting a foothold in Kenya taking power to regions in Kenya where darkness was king. The component technologies driving the revolution in renewable energy are photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, concentrated solar power, hydro, ocean wave power, and geothermal power. With the commissioning of the 280 MW geothermal project in 2015 by KENGEN, Kenya has positioned itself as a geothermal power house in the world. Being cheaper geothermal is not only good for the environment but also for the consumers’ pockets.

Cloud technologies

Companies are setting up data centres in Kenya as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) business moves to the cloud. Cloud technology involves internet based computing systems, the cloud enables companies to consume computer resources as a utility rather than having to build and maintain computing infrastructures themselves. The key applications here include enterprise IT productivity and cloud based delivery of internet services and applications.

Cloud computing is revolutionary at three main areas for end users. First it allows a user, self-service provisioning, users can spin up computing resources for almost any type of workload on-demand. It also brings elasticity, where the user can scale up and down depending on their computing needs. It also has a pay per use ability where computing resources are measured at a granular level, allowing users to pay only for the resources and workloads they use. These kinds of flexibility have already proved popular with cloud computing companies coming up and even large IT corporations starting cloud divisions. Kenyans being a very active group using online services for both pleasure and business have not lagged behind in adopting cloud technologies. Every day services like online file sharing services like drop box, social media, Google applications are just some examples of the applications of cloud technologies in everyday life. 

Advanced robotics

Soon robots will be commonplace in many spheres of life, scenes ubiquitous with sci-fi movies will invade all areas of life including, manufacturing, surgery, human augmentation, homes and service delivery. This is driven in part by artificial intelligence, computer vision, robotic dexterity, sensors, distributed robotics, and robotic exoskeletons.

Mobile internet

The mobile internet industry has a potential of $10 trillion in the next five years. The key applications here are service delivery, worker productivity, and mobile internet services. Apart from software creation for mobile phones, Kenyan brains have not excelled in driving mobile phone hardware development. However a  Kenyan company has now thrown in their spanner in the wax, Synergy Innovations Kenya limited is creating Silk Patriot, a five and half inch touch screen Android phone with the latest 4G internet capability. Michael Asola, the company’s chief operations officer says, “Silk Patriot uses a qualcom chipset as opposed to the inferior mediatech processor.” According to a Kenyan daily

He reveals that 80 per cent of all phones in Kenya use mediatech processors, which is responsible for overheating and other problems phone users experience. Targeting to satisfy the huge demand for smart phones in Kenya the company has set out to be Kenya’s Samsung in as much as they are currently looking to manufacture in China. ICT has proved to be a force for good in Kenya over the years with innovations in the mobile banking sector even receiving international acclaim. The areas of change in the industry include wireless technologies, small, low-cost computing and storage devices, advanced display technologies, and advancements in battery technologies. 

Internet of things 

Devices around the world, whether it is a Smartphone, a home appliance, or an airplane, include a varying amount of sensors inside them. Most devices are getting more and more computing power. Those sensors and computing devices are increasingly interconnecting via Wi-Fi and other emergent technologies like Li-Fi. IoT is about interconnecting, and creating intelligence from all the devices around us. The world is beginning to have a community of devices talking to each other. Soon your Smartphone, car, office, television and laptop will be having conversations without involving you, they could even go ahead and make decisions that affect you without involving you.

The Engineers Board of Kenya and the Institution of Engineers of Kenya could get in on these global developments by embracing these disruptive technologies and having on board Information and Communications Technology engineers and the other associated engineering professional. The first thing they could be taxed with is to create a proper online portal for these two engineering bodies and a proper electronic voting platform for the Institution. EBK currently does not have a class to recognize professionals even Telecommunications Engineers in as much as ICT and affiliated fields could probably be employing the majority of engineers. Telecommunications is indeed an old branch of engineering going back hundreds of years

Engineers are known as some of the most tech savvy individuals in the world as such it baffles one why the Institution of Engineers of Kenya still votes in an analogue manner. One would imagine the community of engineers would use their ingenuity to put in place a mechanism for online voting. This imagined system would prove so sophisticated that the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) would come, learn a thing or two, and perhaps ask the engineers to roll out such an advanced system country wide to replace the Biometric Voter Registration kits that show no sign of working any time soon. After all Engineers, solve societal problems.

It is interesting to note that some pundits have observed that automation and digitization in the public spheres of life will help in the existential fight against corruption that Kenya is engaged in. Removing the human component in the process of service delivery they say has the power to render the gods of corruption helpless. Out of such ideas and in the spirit of embracing ICT Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) was born. It is operational in both the National and County Governments. The system guarantees that each expense is traceable, ‘delivering optimal value to every taxpayer’ the government has said, but has it helped with the wanton pillaging of public coffers?

 

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Kenya Engineer is the definitive publication of Engineers in East Africa & beyond and the official journal of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya. Kenya Engineer has been in publication since 1972.

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